Cruz will enjoy home court advantage, which won't be enough.
TONIGHT COULD RULE OUT A TRUMP-RUBIO TICKET
We started with seventeen candidates for the Republican nomination.
Even before their declaration of candidacy, I predicted candidates ranging from Scott Walker to Jeb Bush had no path to the nomination, much to the dismay of my conservative friends who supported Walker at the outset, and my wealthy moderate Republican friends convinced they could buy the nomination for Jeb. Fiorina showed some promise, but for many reasons I felt it was only a matter of time before her candidacy stalled. And the RNC debate rules were biased against her and any candidates short on resources but high on debate skills.
Other candidates were nonstarters -- Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, and George Pataki. I indicated early last year that even improved Rick Perry could not compete and would withdraw early. Like Walker who also had super PAC money, Perry did the honorable thing by withdrawing early.
I reiterated often that Rick Santorum was history, and that Mike Huckabee also was news from another day; at the outset, I assigned each a near zero probability (nothing is ever zero). Also at the beginning of this campaign drama early in 2105, I thought Rand Paul had an outside chance, but quickly revised my opinion as his lack of focus became apparent. I thought Chris Christie and John Kasich were distant probability but plausible. But Christie's sporadic effectiveness in debates did not translate into support. In theory, a Kasich (Ohio)-Rubio(Florida) ticket appealed on the surface for electoral reasons, in a normal year, but this is no normal year.
And, for a while, Ben Carson had momentum but did nothing with it; he showed no growth as a candidate and has persisted largely on account of a valued but depreciating direct mail donor base.
Now we come to the tenth debate tonight. With only five candidates, the pressure is on, because each candidate has more time, there is more interaction, and it is easier for the television audience to remember who said what. Will this debate be different or will Trump rivals challenge him ineptly, with the same tactics and issues that have not resonated off his Teflon? Indeed, sometimes their attacks are so off they actually help Trump and validate and embolden his supporters.
I know what I would do if I were Cruz or Rubio, but I won't tell them.
Wolf Blitzer will pursue follow-ups aggressively and may point out inconsistencies among the candidates. Given Trump's curious refusal to agree to release even his 2014 personal income tax returns (Trump switched the subject to his business returns), Blitzer will probably challenge all five to release their tax returns. Look for Trump to ridicule Rubio's income and his net worth, and to pivot to the loans Cruz took from Wall Street, and end up attacking Mitt Romney as a loser.
Telemundo's Arraras may pursue the immigration issue which, on net balance, likely would help Trump. There will be the usual Rubio-Cruz infighting that hurts both men and makes Trump sound like an elder statesman. Trump then will side with Rubio and call Cruz a liar, unless he thinks Cruz is gone, and then he'll call them both liars.
Dana Bash will ask some questions appropriate for the Clinton-Sanders debate, at least one of which will relate to women. Trump will say he loves women and the Trump executive vice president who built Trump Towers was a woman. Hugh Hewitt will ask arcane and esoteric questions that could help the knowledgeable Cruz, if Cruz can only change his method of delivery. Lawyer Hewitt will ask Trump a weird question on the Supreme Court, then say, "This is not a gotcha question, and I understand if you can't answer." In the post-debate commentary, Sean Hannity will tell Trump he was unfairly asked specific questions, to which Trump will reply that he is a businessman who should not be expected to answer such questions, and that's all Marco Rubio can do, is answer questions.
Donald Trump has repeated the same lines for many debates, as in his public appearances. The good news for Trump is that he knows branding and while repetition bores the journalists and political junkies, it tends to reinforce the brand, the theme, and the message. So far, the Trump base doesn't care if he can't answer questions normally asked of a presidential candidate.
Ben Carson is there for the ride. I see absolutely no pathway to the nomination. He has performed poorly in recent debates. He sometimes answers a question that was not asked. This is better than Democrat Bernie Sanders; sometimes in a debate his lips move and nothing comes out. Anyway, based on my previous analysis of the evangelical vote, it's not at all clear that if Carson ever dropped out, his voters would move to, say, Cruz. All the math scenarios I see are indefensible, especially the silly assumption that as each candidate drops out, Trump loses more of his lead.
One main fallacy so far has been the emphasis on primary states as if they were separate entities. The big picture -- the macro-impressions -- has been impacted mainly by the free/earned media events and appearances and interviews and, of course, debates, and not the trademark mediocre advertising of Republican campaigns. Count Jeb Bush's $150 million raised, $120 million spent for Guinness Book of Records or maybe Ripley's Believe It or Not for chutzpah waste.
And, also, there is the momentum impact of each prior primary election that frames each debate before the next primary, especially where supporters insist their candidate won.
John Kasich sometimes appears to be more sensible and down to earth than his colleagues, but he also seems anachronistic. In many ways he is in a time warp, evidenced by his comment about women coming out of the kitchen to hear him. Though he was speaking about the past, he just doesn't get it (until after he flubs). While Trump is egocentric, it seems acceptable in him, but Kasich sometimes seems taken with himself.
This debate in Houston gives home court advantage to Ted Cruz, who also is therefore under pressure to win it. Count on Trump to predict that he, Trump, could carry Texas over Cruz, Florida over Rubio, and Ohio over Kasich. But early voting already started in Texas, and that could help Cruz. Ted Cruz always acts like he is in a college championship debate. In those debates, judges score as they follow contentions and counter-contentions, within affirmative and negative statements. But Cruz has never made the transition from competitive forensics to political theater, the latter involving how regular folks see things and whether they like you. Any focus groups competently done by his campaign would have told the Cruz folks how he needed to modify his persona (yes, it can be done), but either they didn't do focus groups, or they were poorly done, or they didn't draw the right inferences, or they didn't tell Cruz, or he didn't listen.
Marco Rubio has needed an injection of gravitas. Since he started running, I expressed the hope that he would slow down his delivery and pretend to be thinking before he talks. Rubio appears to have learned from his near-fatal New Hampshire mishap where he repeated himself three times, thus validating the stereotype his detractors have drawn of him --that he is a collection of sound bites. Tonight, he will try to prove otherwise, and he has the smarts to do it.
Tonight we also will see whether Marco Rubio is running for president. Trump's strategy is to take out the most threatening opponent, so his most recent focus was on Cruz. He played Cruz for a sucker for a long time, as Cruz praised "Donald" repeatedly, while Trump knowingly cultivated that praise, as he prepared to take Cruz down. As for Rubio, he will be next on Trump's list, maybe even tonight, especially if Rubio attacks first. This is Trump's modus operandi; it is his justification to do what he wants to do, gut the opponent.
Trump has never regarded Kasich as a threat. ˙He has never said anything about Kasich that would rule out the Ohio governor as a vice presidential nominee. And Kasich in turn, while at times dismissive of Trump's negativism, has himself remained positive, only mildly taking on Trump. And Ohio is Ohio. It's important in the electoral calculus. Kasich does not turn on conservatives who have had their problems with him in Ohio. But Kasich has the political experience Trump claims to want in a vice presidential nominee. "I don't want another businessman, another outsider," Trump says. That means Carson is out of contention. The very fact that Trump is the only candidate being asked who he might want as a running mate indicates how Trump has controlled the discussion in his favor. Yet, while he is favored to win, it's hardly settled.
Despite his repeated changes in positions and contradictions and lack of specificity, Trump is seen as a strong leader, in good part due to the news media that has repeatedly given him presidential type coverage. This has been unfair to the other candidates, as the mainstream media and FOX have made the presidential primary a reality television show with Trump as the main star. Yesterday while showing a video of what Cruz actually was doing, CNN had Trump on the telephone - -saying nothing newsworthy. It was quite an affront to Cruz and, from a journalistic standpoint, absurd.
If Trump were to be nominated, he could never pick Cruz as his running mate. He has not simply disagreed with Cruz on policy, but he has called him "the biggest liar in American politics," a statement not said once, impulsively, but repeatedly and in different ways. Unless Trump calms down, he will effectively rule out any of his primary opponents as a running mate (assuming Trump were the nominee). And it's clear that no one could pick Trump as a running mate. Imagine a contested primary process where a candidate would do so well but not get the presidential nomination and be outside of consideration as a VP candidate. That's Trump -- he would not accept that spot, and he would be so out of control and so upstage the presidential nominee.
These debates have both helped and hurt the Republican party. They have helped because of the tremendous interest in them, and the high number of television viewers, and possibly new people who have been drawn into the process, with record voter turnouts. The other side of the coin is that the negativism and dirty linen and problem issues have been put front and center before the primary and general electorate. Many of the candidates have seemed just as juvenile as in the debates four and eight years ago. And there has been insufficient focus on Obama, Clinton, Sanders...
The Republican candidates who started out as weary of the impact of the debate process from four and eight years ago, and pledged an affirmative approach and caution, and refusal to gut their opponents or give ammunition to the Democrats in a general election -- that has largely fallen by the wayside. Certainly the Republican National Committee had and has lost control of the process; indeed, that happened at the beginning with the RNC's deference to the networks, and with the poorly conceived and changing polling criteria for inclusion, and Reince Priebus's refusal to consider dual debates (eight candidates each) at the outset, rather than one large, cumbersome debate.
Rubio has been doing well among late-deciding voters, the main reason why Trump might be more aggressive against hi tonight. So far, last year, Trump questioned Rubio's lack of accomplishment and his management of family finance, but not his character, as he was done with Cruz. . But as a vice presidential nominee, Rubio could easily play mentor to Trump as the CEO. But if Rubio feels he has to go for a knockout punch tonight and comes out swinging against Trump, then Trump will respond not in kind, but more so. ("If you hit me, I hit back harder" -- a line that feeds Trump's image of a strong leader, but previews his possible over-the-top character assassination). If Trump crosses the line into sound bite hyperbole, he will, in effect, rule out Rubio as a running mate. In the unlikely case that Trump holds back, Trump either (1) is waiting for Cruz to fall first, and will get to Rubio another time or (2) is open to Rubio as vice president.
All this talk of Trump as party nominee is academic, of course, if you think the nomination is still up for grabs. And it is, for now.
An earlier and shorter version of this appeared in The American Spectator.